WASHINGTON - The House on Thursday overwhelmingly backed a $601 billion defense authorization bill that spares planes, ships and military bases in an election-year nod to hometown interests.
Ignoring a White House veto threat, Republicans and Democrats united behind the popular measure that authorizes spending on weapons and personnel for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1. The vote was 325-98 for the legislation which now must be reconciled with a work-in-progress Senate version.
The Pentagon had proposed retiring the Cold War-era U-2 spy plane and the A-10 Warthog close-air support aircraft as well as shuttering unnecessary bases.
Spending on the military is being cut after more than a decade of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, and deficit-driven budget reductions are taking a toll.
Working within spending limits, the Pentagon proposed retiring decades-old aircraft programs, including the A-10 Warthog, a close air support plane, and the U-2 spy plane of the Cold War era. The Defense Department also sought congressional approval to close military bases deemed unessential and slightly increase out-of-pocket costs for housing and health care.
Not this year, said Republicans and Democrats alike. They left popular personnel benefits untouched despite repeated warnings that the skyrocketing costs of Pentagon entitlement programs come at the expense of modernizing and training the military.
"It is not our job to accept the department's budget as is, but if we are to reject the Pentagon's cost-saving measures we need to offer alternatives. We didn't. We ducked every difficult decision," said Rep. Adam Smith of Washington state, the top Democrat on the Armed Services Committee. "We played accounting games and cut readiness as we stand by and wait for a miracle. We owe our troops more."
Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif., chairman of the committee, rejected the suggestion that the measure was a "sop to parochial interests," arguing that the bill makes "the tough decisions that put the troops first."
The Obama administration objects to pinching the budget for readiness by $1.2 billion to cover the cost of favored ships and planes. Smith warned that the patchwork approach this year will make budgeting nearly impossible in future years.
Navy cruisers, an aircraft carrier and AWACS aircraft, the airborne warning and control system, were saved.
Rep. Jim Bridenstine, R-Okla., a former pilot and tea party favorite elected in 2012, spared three of seven AWACS aircraft based at Tinker Air Force Base in his home state. Rep. Ron Barber, D-Ariz., secured bipartisan support for providing $635 million for the Air Force's A-10, which has a strong coalition of backers in Congress.
The House engaged in a spirited debate over post-Sept. 11 laws and practices, and whether they are overly broad and still viable nearly 13 years after the terror attacks. Lawmakers pressed to sunset the authorization given to the president to use military force, to end the indefinite detention of terror suspects captured on U.S. soil and to close the U.S. naval facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The bill imposes limits on President Barack Obama's handling of terror suspects at Guantanamo, barring him from transferring detainees to maximum-security prisons in the United States.
The White House late Wednesday said the president would veto the bill if it "continues unwarranted restrictions regarding Guantanamo detainees."
Hours later, the House rejected a measure to close Guantanamo. It also maintained its support for the authorization to use military force and indefinite detention.
The House Rules Committee allowed 162 amendments to the legislation but rejected measures on immigration that would have offered citizenship to young immigrants brought here illegally who serve in the military. The panel also rejected legislation that would have opened the U.S. military academies to such immigrants.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said the far-reaching defense bill was inappropriate for the debate on immigration.
To address the problem of sexual assault in the military, the bill would change the military rules of evidence to prohibit the accused from using good military character asdefense in court-martial proceedings unless it was directly relevant to the alleged crime.
The "good soldier defense" could encompass a defendant's military record of reliability, dependability, professionalism and reputation as an individual who could be counted on in war and peacetime.
Overall, the legislation would provide $495.8 billion for the core defense budget, $17.9 billion for energy programs within Pentagon spending and $79.4 billion for the war in Afghanistan and other overseas operations.